By Hanna Flint
As I step into Russell Tovey's east London loft, I see people everywhere. Two Amoako Boafo portraits of beautiful dark-skinned Black subjects wearing vibrant tops adorn a wall in front of a large wooden E15 dining table he bought 10 years earlier. A Studio.SPF canvas he selected from the new M.A.H Gallery Soho Home art collection depicts a curly-haired man with ears not dissimilar to Tovey's own (but reminds him more of the actor Josh O'Connor) rests on an easel he brought back from New York. Various abstract pencil and charcoal drawings of figures, ceramic busts and postcards of faces add to this domestic community of artistic impression. But I'm most drawn to 'My Reflection Of You', an Ana Benaroya rendering of two voluptuous women having a cigarette and a glass of wine, which takes centre stage in the kitchen that Tovey recently redesigned.
'The art always has come first, and I wanted this kitchen to feel social,' the actor, art connoisseur and collector tells me, as we take in his newly renovated abode. 'I love body language, facial expressions and character, so there's a lot of figurative work in here.'
Tovey likes to collect interior inspiration as much as art. If he's not ripping out pages from design magazines, he's screenshotting furniture on Instagram and saving it to a dedicated folder on his phone that he could refer back to for the renovation. He wanted to create a cohesive discourse between who he is as an art collector as well as 'a collector of furniture, objects or ceramics', so that the space didn't just feel like a gallery. Ebay has proven to be a wondrous wellspring where he purchased the bench and stalls for the kitchen, a range cooker, a conch he had restored to a professional level, and the taps for the sink.
However, Soho House has long been a design influence for the actor, who has been a member since he was 18. 'I always go to the toilets at Soho House and so I ask, "I want that toilet roll holder, I want those sinks, where can I find them?'" he says. 'When the Soho Home stuff came online at the beginning, there was a whole vintage section, so I've got a towel rack. The little soap dispenser [in the kitchen], that's Lefroy Brooks, which is a Soho House brand. It's amazing that you can go to a House and then say "I want that". Over the years I've bought throws and cushions. It's just beautiful stuff.'
In keeping with the earthy tones and mid-century feel, old wood in various shades is a prominent feature of his London loft. For example, his Soho Home bed frame, sideboards and a bookcase he had specially made to house his art book collection, featuring tomes by Tracey Emin, Wolfgang Tillmans and Derek Jarman. 'It was a bit of a splurge, but this has become one of my favourite things in this place because it shows off the books beautifully,' he admits. 'For people that can't afford art but love an artist, they can buy the book and put it on their coffee table.'
Ultimately, Tovey wanted to strike a balance between the art and the interiors to create a relaxing living space that also serves as a personal diary. 'The building is the star object and everything else is like the supporting actors bringing an incredible story to life,' he says, looking out at the living room and surveying all the interior touches. 'That's from when I met that artist, and that's when I was doing that play that changed my life and career. The place is embedded with all of this history, energy and joy.'
Tovey set about creating a subtle living space where the works could shine. He chose a mellow, off-white Lick paint colour for the walls and pillars, with a brown tone for the front door that complements the exposed wooden floors and brick of the building, which was once a storage facility for the British Museum. 'I wanted to warm it up in here and make it cosier,' he says, referencing his Margate property, which he and his partner Steve Brockman bought and renovated two years ago, as a source of influence. 'The colours for that Victorian house were very neutral,' he adds. 'Lots of Farrow & Ball Joa's White across [the walls] and you can hang the art up against it; you still see the art obviously, but it isn't screaming out like if you have stark [white]. We wanted something that was welcoming where everybody felt comfortable.'
Tovey's natural warmth shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, he is in the business of people. He's spent more than two decades walking in the shoes of many people on stage and screen to become one of the most reliable and affable performers our country has to offer. From playing school kid Rudge in the stage play and screen adaptation of Alan Bennett's The History Boys to lending his lad-next-door charm to the hit BBC comedy series Being Human and Him & Her, the Essex boy has since earnt acclaimed for his performances. These include the stage and screen adaptation of The Pass, the National Theatre production of Angels In America and the BBC drama series Years And Years, where he could connect with gay characters who share a similar experience of the world.
'I didn't really have an idea of a career, I just kept working,' he says. 'I didn't understand negotiating your trajectory. I was very fortunate that I was just getting offered those things and I did it all. That's been brilliant, but now I'm incredibly thankful that I can just chill and do things I want to do.'
That includes becoming one of the most relatable faces of art, thanks to the Talk Art podcast he started back in 2018 with gallerist Robert Diament. In each episode, the long-time pals invite listeners to join a wide-ranging discussion with the help of guest artists, curators, collectors, celebrities and fans alike. The motivation was to challenge the elitist impression of who gets to enjoy and own art, making it more accessible to people of all backgrounds, as well as offering a platform to bring diverse artists out of the margins. 'We just want to be a conduit to discovery and allow people an opportunity to really be at their best, so they can then connect with them,' says Tovey. 'So many emerging or even mid-career artists that are often overlooked have been discovered through the podcast. People then do studio visits or are given exhibitions and get representation, and that has been incredible - to be looked at by people who are not in the art world and by people who are.'
Talk Art continues to go from strength to strength. The podcast has hit more than six million downloads, and the pair have written and released two books; their latest, Talk Art The Interviews: Conversations On Art, Life And Everything, features interviews with designer Paul Smith, artist Chila Kumari Burman and Elton John. Tovey has also been invited to curate various gallery exhibitions around the world, as well as be a judge for the 2021 Turner Prize and a patron for Art UK in 2022. But the podcast has also helped fuel his acting craft. 'We've done over 250 interviews with people who are from all walks of life,' he says. 'I'm absorbing by osmosis all of their stories and energy, so when I get characters I can feed in all this stuff.' It even landed him a role. American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy DMed him on Instagram to ask for a chat, and soon enough Tovey was cast in the most recent season playing an NYPD cop in the 1980s, investigating a serial killer targeting gay men. 'We talked about [the role] for three minutes and then we talked about art, because he is obsessed with art and design. We bonded and, in some ways, if I hadn't done the art stuff he might not have been as interested in me as an actor.'
Tovey has had a voracious eye for art ever since he was a young boy reading Marvel comics and watching cartoons. The first artworks he ever hung up on his childhood room wall were David Hockney posters from exhibitions he visited. For his 21st birthday, his parents bought him a Tracey Emin print called 'Dog Brains'. And with his pay cheque for The History Boys, he bought himself an original monoprint from White Cube. Now his art collection boasts more than 300 pieces, which are located between this apartment, his Victorian house in Margate and a storage unit, but he frequently browses the lot via an app on his phone. 'When I was hanging [paintings] here or at Margate, I would look through and I'd be like, "I've got that. I can put that with that. Would that go? Oh my god, I forgot I had that." I'm like an obsessive curator moving things around. I'm a complete art addict. There should be like an Art Anonymous. I would have to go!'
Currently, his favourite piece is a Derek Jarman sandy-coloured, textured canvas called 'Pleasures Of Italy'. It's especially resonant as the actor has just appeared in Blue Now, a series of immersive live performances celebrating the revolutionary artist, writer and filmmaker's final project (Jarman died in 1994, aged just 52, due to an AIDS-related illness). 'It is from 1983, and he was looking a lot at landscapes, archaeology and Egyptology, and this is when he was in Italy having a lovely time,' says Tovey. 'He inspires me with his activism, which makes me feel more emboldened now, and he was doing that years ago. And here I am in 2023, going, "I want to be Derek Jarman, I want to do what Derek Jarman did", and it makes me feel more present in the world. I get to live with that and I just love it, it's like a dopamine hit.'
The ability to marry his two creative passions continues to excite Tovey. He hopes one day to play his hero Keith Haring in a biopic, but his latest art film pursuit is a documentary on the late poet and contemporary artist David Robilliard. Both Robilliard and Haring were visionaries who also lost their lives to AIDS-related illness in 1988 and 1990, respectively. Tovey hopes to further cement their legacies in our global cultural consciousness, alongside the myriad artistic figures who paved the way for queer people today.
'Younger generations do need to know that they're standing on the shoulders of giants and be aware of what's happened, because it could flip,' he says. 'Things can change overnight, especially when it comes to our rights. And the older I get, I see myself as an activist, and that art is political.'
Art will always be a window to life for Russell Tovey, and in his home it truly lives.
Shop the M.A.H Gallery Soho Home art collection here, available in the UK only.